Counseling the Detour

I once said that counseling denied students was one of the most satisfying parts of my job.  Certainly not because it’s fun.  Often it’s anything but.  Nevertheless, when a student comes to see a denial as a detour, rather than a dead-end, the situation is often redeemed.

I should first make sure it is clear that denying an applicant is not a decision that is made lightly.  We understand the sort of trauma that often accompanies the decision.  Lives are changed by that decision.  Tears will fall.  Anger will (sometimes) rise.  It’s hard on a young person to feel rejected.  We know all that, and consequently weigh our decisions very carefully.

The bottom line, when we do deny admission to an applicant, is that we really feel that the student does not have a reasonable chance of success at our institution given the evidence of previous performance.  We do not operate under the philosophy that “everyone deserves a chance to fail.”  Rather, we strive to admit students who have a reasonable chance of success in our specific environment.  If we believe that a student will not be successful here, we do not think we are doing a favor by admitting that student, no matter how intense their desire to be admitted. 

Having said that, I would go back to the concept that this decision can definitely be viewed as a detour, not a dead end.  Remember, I said that our decision is based on the evidence of previous performance.  This suggests that it is possible to pursue a course that allows for new evidence to be developed. 

Most often, when we coach a student regarding options, we suggest that they enroll in another post-secondary environment to earn transferrable course work.  This can be a 2-year UW College, a WTCS campus, or a local satellite campus of another college.  Their task while at that institution will be to change the evidenceregarding their ability to succeed in a post-secondary environment.  Generally, once a student has earned at least 15 transferrable credits with a reasonable level of success, we will reconsider them for admission.  For most students, that is not a lengthy detour.  Helping them to see that starts the mental transition from “dead end” to “detour.” 

This process of changing the evidence may be made necessary by a couple of different things.  One typical profile of a student who is not granted admission is that of a person who has terrific test scores but a very low GPA.  What this tells us is that the student has great potential, but has not used that potential in the past.  When we “coach the detour” for those students, we’re looking for evidence that s/he has become willing to apply that great potential to achieve better grades.  Another typical profile is that of a student who has achieved marginal success in academics (shown by grades and/or test scores), and who may benefit from additional preparation in an academic setting.  Some weaker students benefit from starting college in an environment where freshman class sizes are lower, for instance, and which allow for closer contact with their teachers.  There are also the students who “are just not good test takers.”  We hear that a lot.  The reality of college, however, is that grades (especially in the freshman year) are heavily weighted on a handful of timed tests (in an environment where “extra credit” is virtually unheard of to compensate for low test scores).  If a student in that situation is coached through a detour, the experience will help to provide evidence that they have learned to test successfully in a high-pressure, timed environment.  Or, the experience may get them further along in their academic career to a point that their grades become more project- and research-based.

Whatever the initial reason for the denial, the option of proving one’s ability to succeed in a different environment may help encourage a student.  The key is to make sure they have a plan. 

When I coach the detour with a student, the first thing we do is to decide which environment is most appropriate for them – UW College, WTCS, or another local college.  Then, using TIS (for UW colleges or WTCS), we actually choose courses that will 1) transfer, 2) apply toward General Education requirements, and 3) build needed skills.  We talk about whatever needs to be done to get started at that school, and we talk – in very specific terms – about what the ONE NEXT STEP is.  That keeps in manageable for most students.  Finally, I invite the student to get in touch with me when it’s time to take the step after that.  And the step after that.  And so on.  Most importantly, before the student leaves my office, I ask, “Do you feel like you have a plan?”  If they say no, we go back to whatever point is causing the confusion. 

When the student says, “Yes, I have a plan,” we can both feel good about the fact that the “dead end” has become a “detour.”


I don’t know about you, but there are some days I would rather not come to work.  I like my job and I’m reasonably good at it, but there are other things I like to do and am good at, too.  But the bottom line is this: my work has to be my priority.  It is what I have chosen to do, and it carries obligations.  Granted, it’s important to sometimes take time away and do that other stuff, but it just can’t be whenever I feel like it or just because I feel like it.  First things first, you know, and most days that means coming to work.

So, what’s the point? 

I got to thinking about this analogy because of a conversation I was having with a student.  It went something like this:

Me: “We like to see more rigor during senior year.”

Student: “But you said that extracurriculars were important.  I was in band (and went to state), three sports (and lettered in all of them), and I worked, too.  I didn’t want to load up too much with classes because I didn’t want my GPA to go down.”

Me: “Yes, we noticed your involvement, and actually your ‘engagement’ was a plus factor in our evaluation.  But that doesn’t make up for the fact that you could have – and should have – fit more college-prep classes into your senior schedule.  Lack of rigor was a ‘minus’ factor.”

Student:  “But I LIKE those other classes, and I’m good at them.  And I LIKE music and sports, and I’m good at them.  Why shouldn’t I be able to do those things?”

 Maybe you see my point.  The lesson this particular student had to learn was about priorities, making choices, and balance.  If you think of the primary “job” of a college-bound student as preparing for college-level course work, then the analogy falls into place.  We all have to make choices, and we all have to decide what is most important when making choices – it’s called “priorities.”  No one can do it all.  It’s a life lesson: the choices we have to make are not always the choices we want to make. 

Having said that, I would also acknowledge that the “other stuff” is important and worthy of some portion of available time.  That’s where the “balance” comes in.  It is true that we like to see engagement and leadership in high school – and we like to see it in college, too.  The things learned outside of the classroom are valuable life lessons, and can serve students well in the future.  It’s when the “other stuff” crowds out the primary responsibility – academics – that both high school and college students run into trouble.  Every student must find the point at which their academics and activities balance in such a way as to allow for excellence in both.

I won’t pretend that it’s an easy lesson to teach because so much depends upon the individual.  However, high school is a good time for students to start learning to recognize their skills and limitations, and to learn the life lessons of priorities, choices and balance.  When they learn this in high school, it will carry into their college years, hopefully leading to success there, and then into their career and family lives.

No, I didn’t particularly want to come to work today.  It’s cold, blustery, and rainy and I’d have preferred to stay home and can homemade applesauce (which I’m good at and I LIKE doing).  But I did come to work, and will fulfill my obligations here, and will plan to can applesauce on the weekend.  Priorities, choices and balance.  It’s real life.

It’s Less of a Formula Than You Might Imagine

I was meeting with a group of families today who had come to check out UW-Green Bay.  For our campus visits, families typically meet with an admissions representative for about an hour prior to going on tour.  One of the topics we cover is admission guidelines, and the admission decision-making process.  I commented to the group that it’s a very comprehensive process, and “less of a formula than you might imagine.”

 One very perceptive mom, who was viewing our “admissions grid,” raised her hand and challenged me on that statement.  She said it seemed that students within certain parameters were virtually automatic admits.  (Indeed, students with a combination of high ACT plus high GPA are admitted at a very high rate.)  That’s not the whole story, though.

 As I explain this farther, let me first list some of the different things we take into consideration when making an admission decision:

  • Grade Point Average: At UW-Green Bay, we use cumulative GPA (rather than rank) during our admission evaluations.  (See my previous post regarding rank.) 
  • Grade Trends: Has the applicant’s GPA gone up or down over the high school years?  Or has it been consistent?  (Consistent or up is what we’re looking for.)
  • Grade Distribution: In what subject areas does the student have the strongest grades?  Are they in core college-prep areas?  Elective areas?  Is the distribution even throughout?  If a student has all A’s in physical education and D’s in English, the GPA  might not be bad, but the GPA doesn’t reflect academic performance in that case.  That’s why the distribution is important.
  • Rigor (especially senior year):  See the blog post from October 13 for extensive coverage of the rigor issue.
  • Applicant Statement(s):  Can we tell from the statement(s) if the student will be a good “fit” at our campus?  Is the statement about choosing UW-Green Bay because if its outstanding Environmental Science major (which is true), or is it about choosing UW-Green Bay for its outstanding Interior Design major (which we don’t have at all)?  In other words, has the student done some homework to learn about us, and has the student chosen to apply here based on accurate information?  (For more about the applicant statement(s), see the blog entry from September 22.)
  • Letters of Recommendation: These are not required, but they can be helpful for students who are “on the bubble.”  We prefer letters from people who can address the applicant’s potential to do college-level academic work, but sometimes letters are helpful that tell us things about the student that may be relevant to the decision but that the student may not wish to write about.
  • “Engagement”: Because we know that students who are engaged in activities outside of the classroom tend to be most successful here at UW-Green Bay, we systematically evaluate the student’s level of engagement in high school.  If a student was active in high school, s/he is likely to be active in college.  We gather this information from both the application, and from information that comes in the ACT data file that contains student test scores.  (Which is one of the reasons that we require test scores directly from ACT or SAT.) 

So, the factors involved in the decision are many and varied.

Back to the mom’s question.

It is true that some combinations of credentials make admission seem virtually certain.  Think about this though:  Isn’t it true that the students with the highest GPA’s are often the ones who have chosen the most rigorous courses?  That the students with the most rigorous courses are often the ones with the highest ACT scores?  That the students with the best overall records are the ones most likely to have letters of recommendation to submit?  And, that those same students are also often the ones who are very engaged outside of the classroom?

I use words like “often” and “most likely” because these statements are generalizations that are not always true.  But frequently they are.  So while it may appear that decisions are formulaic, it’s likely that they simply reflect the reality of student characteristics and choices.

In another recent interaction with a parent, that person shared the perception that an applicant with an ACT of 28 (or other high score) would be virtually assured of admission.  That is not an accurate perception.  We do turn away students with high ACT scores if there are other elements (such as a low GPA) that cause us to think the student might not be successful in our environment.  In addition, although the number is too small to be reflected in the percentages, there are occasional applicants who have strong GPAs and/or ACTs, but do not meet minimal expectations regarding rigor – perhaps they took no math past geometry, for instance.  Those students may be turned away as well. 

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of a phone call.  If you have a student for whom you wish to advocate, give us a call so we can talk.  It’s possible that you, as a school counselor, may be able to provide information that we might not otherwise be able to consider. 

I hope you agree that “it’s less of a formula than you might imagine.”

“Reflections on Rigor” – What does it mean and why does it matter?

I’m continuing to reflect on the topics that were covered during the UW System School Counselors’ Workshops in September.  One recurring theme, at least among the messages that the UW Admissions Directors were delivering, was the concept of rigor.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post, which I know may be daunting to the reader, but this is a big topic worthy of a big entry.

 I believe the directors are in agreement that rigor is a factor when evaluating a student for admission.  “Rigor” can be defined in various ways, but I think it’s safe to say that there are elements common to most of our evaluations:

  1. the level of challenge of a given class – for instance, AP, IB, “advanced” and “honors” courses would generally be recognized as more rigorous, while courses that are remedial, basic in nature or meant to review/reinforce earlier studies would be recognized as less rigorous.  Naturally, there’s a continuum with many courses between the two extremes.  Course descriptions can be very instructive when we try to evaluate the rigor/challenge of any given course.
  2. the specific discipline of a course – there are five general disciplines that fall into commonly-accepted definitions of “college preparatory” – English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language.  These are the disciplines that most directly prepare students for the expectations that will face them in a competitive college environment.  College professors expect students (even freshmen) to be able to research and write essays and papers; to gather, synthesize, and present information; to have an understanding of national and international issues and social structures; to be able to use mathematics not only in respect to pure math, but also in relation to disciplines in natural sciences and the social sciences; to have knowledge in the natural sciences that prepare them for college laboratory science courses; and to communicate effectively verbally and in writing.  These skills will be necessary for all students, regardless of their eventual major, since all students will devote a significant proportion of their college degree to general education-type requirements. 

 At this point I think it’s very important to stress that this does NOT mean that we think courses outside of the “college-prep” disciplines are unimportant.  Indeed, studies in the fine arts, computers, family and consumer education, business, agriculture, technology, and the like are all very important in defining a well-rounded person, and a well-rounded education.  Courses that prepare students for life are important!  The UW System reinforces this in its overall admission policy which allows for the inclusion of these courses in campus admission evaluations.  Please understand: Students are not penalized for taking these courses!  Rather, it would be the absence of core college-prep courses that might reflect negatively in an evaluation.

 Rigor in the senior year is especially important.  We know that some students will satisfy most graduation requirements prior to their senior year.  It may be tempting for them to take a less-challenging schedule during the senior year in an effort to increase/maintain their GPA, or to simply “take a break” after working hard the previous years.  This strategy, however, can backfire.  Here is an analogy frequently cited by Alan Tuchtenhagen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services at UW-River Falls: If you have a student who is a candidate for a college athletic scholarship, is it likely that the student would tell the coach that s/he wants as little challenge as possible during the senior season?  No!  The student will want to maintain or improve their skills in order to be better prepared for college-level competition.  This is exactly what should be happening academically during the senior year – academic conditioning!  Students need to be prepared for the academic competition inherent in the college environment, and this means taking a challenging senior schedule.

 ACT has also taken a strong stand on high school rigor – on its importance, that is.  Please see my October 1 entry, and the links to ACT research, for more details.

 A final note on rigor, as it applies to students who begin high school science, math, or foreign language in 8th grade.  The purpose (in our minds, at least) for starting high school work in 8th grade is so that the student can go farther in that discipline in high school, not so they can quit sooner.  If a student takes algebra in 8th grade, then quits math after algebra 2 in 10th grade, we would not view that as a good thing. 

 The bottom line is this, in regard to rigor:  We are trying to admit university graduates.  “Getting in” as a freshman really isn’t the point.  Graduating from college IS the point.  We’re not trying to make it harder to get into college; we’re trying to make it easier to graduate from college.  Expecting and enforcing rigorous high school preparation for college-level study simply makes sense.  It is in the student’s best interest to do so.  And, ultimately, I think that’s what we all have in mind:  the student’s best interest.

Affirmations:  Because of broad agreement about the importance of rigor among my UW System Admissions colleagues, I asked them to let me know if they were willing to affirm their agreement with this entry.  Those who affirmed this entry are:

UW-Eau Claire – Kris Anderson, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-La Crosse – Kathy Kiefer, Director of Admissions

UW-Madison – Tom Reason, Interim Director of Admissions

UW-Milwaukee – Beth Weckmueller, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-Oshkosh – Jill Endries, Director of Admissions

UW-Parkside – Matthew Jensen, Director of Admissions

UW-Platteville – Angela Udelhofen, Director of Admissions

UW-River Falls – Alan Tuchtenhagen, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services

UW-Stevens Point – Catherine Glennon, Director of Admissions

UW-Stout – Joel Helms, Assistant Director of Admissions

UW-Superior – Tonya Roth, Director of Admissions

UW-Whitewater – Jodi Hare-Paynter, Interim Director of Admissions/Registrar

No Math, No Admission (It bears repeating….)

The post below is a copy of an editorial I wrote for last year’s counselor edition of the Phoenix Update.  I repeat it here due to continuing concerns regarding math preparation for incoming freshmen. 

No Math, No Admission

For the incoming freshman class of 2008, we saw an unfortuate trend – an unusual number of admissions were rescinded due to the failure of the third required credit of high school math.  It may seem that rescinding admission is a rather drastic response when a student “only” fails (or is missing) a credit of math, especially when the rest of the record is relatively solid.

Well, there’s more to this story than you may realize.  Research by ACT, as well as research on our own campus, indicates a strong correlation between success in math and success in college in general.  The number of  UW-Green Bay freshmen requiring remedial math has increased steadily each year.  It may be too much of a stretch to say that all students struggle in college as a result of inadequate math preparation, but indicators do show a relationship.

Solid research shows that the more math a student takes in high school, the higher their ACT scores will be in math and the less likely they are to need remediation.  We reel strongly that it is not unreasonable to expect an incoming freshman to complete at least three credits of college-prep math (with the understanding that more is better), with the expectation that their eventual college success will be tied to this preparation.

The bottom line:  A student who cannot successfully complete three credits of high school college-prep math is unlikely to be successful at UW-Green Bay.  Therefore, we feel that rescinding admission based on failing required math courses during senior year is not an unreasonable action.  It’s never an easy decision, but it may be a necessary decision.

To rank or not to rank; that is the question….

I hope all of the Shakespeare fans out there forgive me for the title of this entry.  (Hmmm, I was an English major and I’m not sure that I even forgive myself….)

Seriously, during the past two weeks I’ve been at the UW System school counselor workshops around Wisconsin (with brief forays into Minnesota and Illinois).  At every session, the question about rank comes up.  High schools struggle year after year with the question about whether or not to provide rank in class for their students.  Is eliminating rank a good thing or a bad thing for their students?

At UW-Green Bay we have a unique perspective on this question.  We have not collected class rank for several years.  We do not use it in the admission decision.  We do not enter it into our data base.  It is not a factor for us.  Why?  A valid question….

A number of years ago we embarked on a research project to try to identify the sorts of information available upon application that would predict later success at UW-Green Bay.  We defined “success” as both academic success and persistence to graduation.  It turned out that cumulative high school grade point average was a better predictor at UW-Green Bay than was rank in class.  We do not mean to suggest that this would be true at all institutions.  We only found it to be true at  UW-Green Bay.  However, from a statistical perspective (the study was done by our institutional researcher – a data wizard) the results were clear.  GPA was a better predictor of success than rank.  So we went with it, and have been happy with the results.

In reality, the overall profile of our freshman class did not change much after we made the switch.  The average high school GPA for incoming freshmen remained around 3.3; the average ACT hovers between 22 and 23.  So, it’s not that the elimination of rank really changed our profile.  Rather, we may have admitted slightly different students than would have otherwise been the case.  But, again, we are satisfied with the decision and the results.

[On a side note, an interesting thing that we found was that “engagement” (participation in activities outside of the classroom) was an important factor for students who were successful at UW-Green Bay.  Consequently, we started to systematically review students’ levels of engagement in high school as part of our review.  Again, we would not extrapolate that finding to other schools; it was just a significant factor for UW-Green Bay.]

I will also tell you that virtually all of my UW System Admissions Director colleagues disagree with UWGB’s stance regarding rank.  I am clearly the outlier when answering this question at the UW System workshops.  Most of the Directors will tell you that the more information they have when making a decision, the better.  I tell you that in the spirit of full disclosure!  Many of them feel strongly, and speak passionately, about the value of having class rank when making a decision.  It would be remiss of me not tell you that.

Having said all that, let me assure you that the process of making an admission decision is a complex process.  More care goes into the evaluation of applicants than you probably realize.  We all want to admit students who have a good chance of success at our campuses.  It’s possible that we should change our name from the Admissions Office to the Future Alumni Office to recognize that we want to admit students who will be successful at – and graduate from – our campuses. 

To rank or not to rank?  I can’t give you a blanket answer to that question.  But I can assure you that whether we use rank or not, we have the same goal in mind: making the best possible decisions for your students and for our institutions.

The Applicant Statement

I once heard a story (I have no idea if it’s true) about a man who asked President Abraham Lincoln how long a man’s legs should be.  (Apparently the President had long legs and a gangly build.)  President Lincoln allegedly answered, “Long enough to reach the ground.”

 Which leads to one of the first questions I usually hear regarding the applicant statement:  “How long should the applicant statement be?”  Well…long enough to say what needs to be said.  For one person it might be 100 words; for another it might be1000.  It’s a bit of a balancing act, crafting a statement that is complete but not overly wordy.  I think most Admissions people would agree that a good applicant statement can be extremely influential in the application process.  However, I think most would also agree that we don’t really want to read three or four pages – unless the candidate has truly extraordinary circumstances that require extensive explanation.  So, write as much as it takes to say what needs to be said, and then be done. 

 “What should I write about?” is the next most common question.  Well, first, if the instructions tell you what to write about, it’s a good idea to write about that.  For instance, the UW System application asks for applicants to write about which activity is most important to them and why.  There’s a reason for that question, and to over-coach a student undermines the value of that question.  When a student answers that question honestly, it tells us something about that student as a person – what s/he values, what is important to him/her.  And that’s what we want to know about – who is this person applying to our school?  What can we learn about him/her that we cannot learn from the numbers (rank, GPA, test scores)? 

 As for the more open-ended questions, again I have to defer to the individual circumstances of the student.  Certainly, if there are extenuating circumstances that need to be explained, then by all means write about that.  However, some students claim that nothing interesting or unusual has ever happened to them (their parents are healthy, living, and still married; they’ve never been poor or disadvantaged; they’ve received a good education at a good high school…)  That may be true – but it does NOT mean that THEY are not interesting or unusual.  Everyone has circumstances and experiences that shape them – and if those circumstances are healthy and stable, then it’s valid to write about how they have been shaped as people because of their stable environment.

 One other thing that all students should be able to write about is why the school they are applying to is a good fit.  All of us in Admissions want to admit students who will be a good fit for our institutions.  And every student has a reason for applying to the school(s) that they are.  Tell us about those reasons.  Is it the size?  The location?  The major?  Certain extracurricular opportunities?  Did you fall in love with the campus during a visit?  Why is UW-Green Bay the best possible place for you?  And why are you the best possible student for UW Green Bay?

 Finally, make sure the statement is well-written, spell checked, and proofread.  No text abbreviations please.  Be careful with punctuation.  Capitalize appropriately.  We draw conclusions about a student’s academic ability by this writing sample, so it is worthwhile to take care with it.  And finally, if a student composes the statement in Word, then cuts and pastes it into the application, be sure to edit the name of the school for each application!  It is amazing how often applicants forget to do that, and you can bet that the red pen comes out to highlight that blunder before the application gets reviewed!

 If pressed for a short answer to the “What should I write?” question, I would say, “Tell me who you are and how you got to be who you are.”  Everyone has that story to tell.